EU Court of Justice: ruling on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Finland, “religious community responsible for use of personal data collected door-to-door”

(Brussels) “A religious community, like that of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is responsible, along with its preaching members, for the use of personal data collected as part of door-to-door preaching”: this has been stated by the European Court of Justice in a ruling issued in Luxembourg, where the EU judiciary is based, this morning. “On September 17th 2013, the tietosuojalautakunta (Finnish Data Protection Committee) banned the Jehovan todistajat – uskonnollinen yhdyskunta (the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Finland) from collecting or using personal data as part of its members’ door-to-door preaching, unless such use of personal data meets the applicable legal requirements”, a notice explains. The community members, “as part of their door-to-door preaching, take notes of the visits they pay to people that neither they nor the community know. The collected data may include the names and addresses of the people they call on and details of their religious beliefs and family status. Such details are collected as reminders, so they can consult them for calling them again later, without those people having agreed to or having been informed about that”. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community and the congregations that report to it “assumedly arrange and coordinate their members’ door-to-door preaching, mainly by preparing maps, based on which – the EU Court of Justice goes on to explain – they share the areas between the preaching members, and by keeping files of the preachers and the number of community’s publications handed out by them”. In addition, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community’s congregations “assumedly manage a list of people who have expressed the wish not to be visited by the preaching members ever again”. The application for a preliminary ruling from the Korkein hallinto-oikeus (Finland’s Supreme Court) “basically aims at finding out whether the community is bound to meet the EU Personal Data Protection regulations, because in their preaching efforts its members may be led to take notes by copying the contents of their interviews and above all the religious beliefs of the people they visit”.
In today’s ruling, the Court of Justice considers first and foremost that the Jehovah’s Witnesses community members’ door-to-door preaching “cannot be exempted from the EU Personal Data Protection law”. The fact that door-to-door preaching is protected by the fundamental right of freedom of conscience and religion, as laid down by Article 10, paragraph 1, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, “does not give it a solely personal, private character, because it goes beyond the private sphere of a preaching member of a religious community”. Any use of personal data as part of door-to-door preaching “must therefore meet the EU Personal Data Protection regulations”.
The Court of Justice concludes that, under the EU Personal Data Protection law, “a religious community, along with its preaching members, may be considered to be responsible for the use of personal data”.